Tag Archives: Death

How To Do Empathy Wrong

23 Nov

sssssh(Image by Valentina Cinelli used under Creative Commons license via)

Have you ever had someone say to you, “I know exactly what you’re going through!” only to have them then rip into a monologue that proves they have no idea what you’re going through?

SarahKat Keezing Gay, whose newborn son needed a heart transplant, has had plenty of experiences with this:

One of my favorites has always been people comparing children’s issues with those of anything that isn’t a child. “Oh, I know just what it’s like to have a newborn. My cat wakes me up all the time!” or “Having kids is expensive, sure, but it’s nothing like having a horse.”

With Hud’s medical stuff, most of the comparisons were to really old people with totally different, usually terminal conditions. “I know just what it feels like to wait for a baby to get a heart transplant. My 85-year old great-uncle had liver disease, and waiting for his transplant was so hard on my family!” … This was particularly chafing when entangled with glaring inaccuracies, such as: “He’s sick? When my grandma went through chemo, she looked terrible, so he must be taking lots of herbal supplements to stop the hair loss and everything, right?”

She is hardly the first survivor of trauma who has had to deal with blunt comparisons that are ultimately unhelpful. In college, I witnessed a trust fund kid compare his worries about paying for a new car to a trailer park kid’s worries about paying for his course books: “I hear ya, bro – I’m struggling, too!”

The best way to get along with the rest of the world is to try to understand it. And most understanding is achieved by comparing the unknown to that which we already know. But there is an unproductive tendency in the it’s-a-small-world-after-all mindset to relativize all hardship to the point of equating all hardship. Twilight star Kristen Stewart told interviewers that unwanted paparazzi photos made her feel “raped.” Millionaire businessman David Harding pronounced the words “geek” and “nerd” to be “as insulting as n*****.” Famed divorcée Elizabeth Gilbert of the Eat, Pray, Love franchise declared that divorce can be more anxiety-inducing than the death of a child, asserting this in a book devoted to gushing about the joys of her new-found love. I don’t know Gilbert or Harding or Stewart personally, so it would be presumptuous to conclude that they must simply be naïve and have no idea what trauma or death threats or bereavement feel like. But their utterances are false equivalencies that alienate more people than they enlighten.

In the recent words of NPR’s Annalisa Quinn: “ ‘We’re all the same on the inside!’ is not that far from ‘Everyone is like me!’ which is not that far from ‘My perspective is universal!’ ” The phrase I know exactly what you’re going through, while sometimes well-intentioned, can ultimately be silencing because it puts the listener in the awkward position of having to choose between keeping quiet and trying to find a gracious way to say, “No, you don’t know what I’m going through.” Saying such a thing can come off as angry and self-involved, so most polite people opt instead to hold their tongues, sparing the other person their upset but also an opportunity to be taken out of their comfort zone and learn about an experience they’ve never had.

In his adorable piece “How To Be Polite,” Paul Ford writes that the fastest way to make a friend as an adult is to ask them what they do for a living and—no matter what their job is—react by saying, “Wow. That sounds hard.” The last time he used this line he was talking to a woman whose job it was to pick out jewelry for celebrities.

It’s a sure-fire way to a person’s heart because we all think we work really hard. We all think we have had trials and tribulations. The blues would never have broken out of the Mississippi Delta if we didn’t. But while our lives are all equally important, they are not equally painful:

Everyone on earth is privileged in some way, but not everyone has experienced severe pain.  Arguing with family, enduring rejection in love, searching for a lucrative and fulfilling job, dealing with the bodily break-down that comes with the onset of age – it is all cause for pain. The pain is both valid and common, which is why there is a plethora of books and films and songs about these experiences. And which is why we expect such pain from life and why it is fair of others to expect us to learn how to deal with it. It is substantial, but it is not severe.

Those who experience severe pain are, thankfully, becoming a minority as our society becomes ever safer and healthier, with rates of life-threatening illness and violence lower than they have ever been in human history. But misery loves company, and severe pain brings on not only profound stress but great loneliness. That’s why support groups exist. Having friends who try to understand, not because they see a chance to tell their own story but because your happiness genuinely matters to them, is lovely. Their efforts signify bravery. But they can never offer the unique comfort of connection that blooms from really knowing what you’re going through.

This was clear when I recently spent an evening at a dinner table where I was the only one who did not have a parent who had died or disowned me. It is clear whenever I read Keezing Gay’s accounts of her baby’s transplant, which moves me to tears every single time, all of them merging to constitute but a drop in the ocean of what her family went through.

The middle-aged mother of a deceased teenager said to me months after her death, “Our friends in Utah got the wrong news and thought for a while that it had been me. That I was the one who died. And I immediately thought when I heard that, Why couldn’t it have been me?  I had a good life.  My life was good until this moment.”

My life was good until this moment.

Unlike mundane pain, severe pain so often brings perspective. Of course, whether or not it does ultimately depends upon the wisdom and strength of the individual. This fact is lost on those who uphold the long tradition of viewing severe pain as a beauty mark worth yearning for because it supposedly imbues the sufferer with automatic heroism. This tradition pervades many circles, though most often those of the young and artsy navel-gazers.

Wes Anderson, who may be our generation’s king of the artsy navel-gazers, captured this problem surprisingly well in Moonrise Kingdom. The scene involves two pre-teens: Suzy the Outcast, who is angry about her mother’s infidelity and often gets into fights at school, and Sam the Oddball Orphan, who has been bounced around from foster family to foster family before being bullied at camp.

She tells him dreamily, “I always wished I was an orphan. Most of my favorite characters are. I think your lives are more special.”

Her sweetheart pauses and narrows his eyes. “I love you, but you don’t know what you’re talking about.”

Because it’s not empathy when it’s all about you.  As Nigerian feminist Spectra wrote in her critique of American Mindy Budgor’s white savior complex gone wild: “This isn’t about people ‘staying where they are’ and disengaging from the world. This is about learning to engage with other cultures with some humility, or at least some bloody respect.”

There is no benefit to engaging in Oppression Olympics; i.e., to trying to prove that abused children have it worse than soldiers with PTSD, or that black women have it worse in the U.S. than gay men. But there is a benefit to acknowledging the differences between their experiences as well as the differences between mild, moderate and severe pain. The benefit is true understanding.

Shortly after an uproar over her rape comment, Kristen Stewart apologized for her crudeness. Acknowledging what we don’t know is an indispensable step in the path toward true understanding. The most deeply thoughtful, impressively modest people I know do this all the time. Their frequent deference in combination with their unwavering support proves that there’s a world of a difference between trying to put yourself in someone else’s shoes and assuming you’ve already worn them.

 
*As in all of my posts, the identities of many of the people cited here have been altered to protect their privacy.

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Lessons in Grief

22 Apr

(Image by Stephen Alcorn © 2003 http://www.alcorngallery.com)

 

Humans are afraid of many things, but death probably ranks the highest.  Whether embracing the pragmatic/repressed approach that insists we keep off such upsetting subjects or delving into the artistic/philosophical fascination with all things morbid, almost no one talks about the realness of grief.  It’s too much of a drag.

This week marks both the birthday and the death day of one of my very best friends, Bill Palinski (1984 – 2004).  My life changed forever when he left without warning.  I had lost close relatives and acquaintances before him, but he was supposed to grow old with me.  He was supposed to accompany me through life, doing what he had always done: enthrall me with his superstar adventures, teach me lessons through his wisdom and his flaws, celebrate with me, listen to me complain and cry, and make fun of me the entire time.  Bad things can happen, but you never truly believe it at the most visceral level until one of your closest loved ones is ripped away from you.  He would be supremely annoyed were I to use his death as a source of self-pity, but he would be pleased to know it has helped me understand grief and those it consumes. 

When you’re in bereavement, you constantly feel on edge.  You want to punch strangers on the subway for going on with their lives and not realizing what an amazing person is missing from the world.  You feel constant guilt whenever you try to do something that doesn’t involve mourning your loved one.  Almost everyone, including your closest friends, says something that strikes you as deeply insensitive.  (Sometimes it is insensitive, other times your anger picks targets at random.)  For the first several months, you avoid parties or any social situations where people will ask you “What’s new?” because you’re constantly on the brink of tears and anyone’s problem unrelated to loss seems incredibly petty to you.  Many people like to talk about death in the abstract—the prospect of dying, the politics of war and violence, famous murder cases, existentialism, Halloween, the songs they want played at their funeral—but almost no one enjoys talking about someone you know who died.  And everyone is ready for you to “move on” and “get over it” way, way before you are.  Getting over it is out of the question.  Growing from it is the only alternative to being paralyzed by your newfound proof that bad things can and do happen, and may very well happen again.  The only way to keep ourselves from letting this fact drive us mad is to engage in what bereavement counselors call “healthy denial.” 

And for all the summarizing I just did, grief varies profoundly with different circumstances.  Losing your best friend and losing your mother and losing a child and losing someone to a long illness and losing someone in an accident and losing someone to murder are all very, very different experiences.  People in grief are usually desperate to hear from other survivors, but they never want the different circumstances shaping their grief to be dismissed for the sake of relativizing sorrow.  The phrase “I know what you’re going through” should be used with caution.   

I didn’t know any of this before I lost him.  I always wanted to help others in bereavement, but I was that awkward person who was scared whenever I didn’t know what to say and believed any sort of grieving beyond a few months was probably unhealthy.  Staying away from social gatherings certainly sounded like a bad idea.  I’m sure I said many careless things that were hurtful.  I probably still do when reacting to someone else’s loss.  But I now find it heartwarming, not sad, if they want to tell stories about the person who’s gone.  And I know to let them call the shots.  If they want to talk about it, listen actively.  If they do not, don’t prod.  Only offer advice or philosophy when they ask for it.  Otherwise listen, listen, listen.  As a friend said after a loss, death highlights how often we forget the importance of listening in all aspects of life; how much we prioritize having an opinion ready for any sort of subject we encounter. 

The grieving process takes up to two years, and of course, the pain never goes away.  There’s not a day that goes by without my missing Bill, but I no longer feel guilty when I push tears aside to pursue something I truly believe in.  Time has brought me to this more productive state of mind, but so has his inspiration. 

At his funeral, his sister said, “We’re all going to have to be a bit better than we had planned on being now that he’s gone.  We have to take on some of the good works he was going to do.”  I’ve carried him with me on every adventure I know he would have loved and never got to have: finding true love, taking in the Tokyo skyline, meeting David Sedaris, learning naughty words in Swedish, belting out “Wig in a Box” a hundred feet away from where the Berlin Wall stood, appreciating the beauty in all the wonderful friends I’ve made since his passing who will only ever know him as photographs and stories.  But I have also let him remind me that I rarely have an excuse for not supporting a cause I believe in. 

Alice Walker said, “Activism is my rent for living on the planet,” and no one embodied this as well as Bill.  By the time of his death at age 20, he had been an exchange student to Ireland, a volunteer for exchange students to the U.S., done volunteer home renovation for a poor black community in South Carolina, donated and signed petitions for the Natural Resources Defense Fund, and worked for almost 10 years with the Quakers for peace, non-violence and human rights.  (In trying to summarize all this in a letter of recommendation, a guidance counselor wrote that he did volunteer work to aid poor Quakers.)  He made friends left and right—in every sense—while simultaneously being known far and wide as the coolest of the cool.  To him, being hip was all about a scathing wit (“Oh, Emily, your little dwarf arms just can’t reach!”) and a refined sense of the absurd (a few times he insisted we pretend to fight at parties just to see everyone else’s awkward reaction).  But it was never about being too cynical to care or work for justice.

Okay, he hated the rainbow flag—“Where was I when they voted on that?!”—preferring the sober tones of the Human Rights Campaign logo.  The medium is the message, of course.  But whenever I slump into cynicism, daunted and wanting to do nothing but complain about humanity’s capacity for cruelty, the ubiquity of ignorance and the overwhelming number of flaws in the system, he is always quick to answer: “So?  You’re alive.  You can do something about it.”